Re: signing a contract
I would say be very careful about dojo with contracts. It should be an indicator, but not a deal-breaker of a McDojo. That being said, the best dojo I've been to had contracts/belt programs. I don't think they do anymore, but they did for a long time. Their belt program didn't guarantee rank...it was not a bad deal actually, if you didn't mind fronting the money...and I don't think it was required to pay that way. The fee included all testing fees, even if you failed a test (and that dojo does occasionally fail students, something that can be a very good sign of a dojo dedicated to quality learning), monthly training for unlimited classes, annual fee, initial uniform and patch, bound training manual, Aikido History book, and discounts on certain items/events. Heck, there was a large seminar about 7 hours away from our dojo and after we signed up sensei said he would pay for everyone's seminar fee (like over $100 each and there were about 13 of us...we had to pay travel, hotel, and food of course). Anyway, just saying these things are not always bad..they just need looking into carefully...very carefully. I would say 8/10 times a contract is a bad sign.
You should not decide where you are going to train based on one or two classes; whether observed or participated. All dojo have exceptionally slow/bad days, and exceptionally great days of training. Some dojo have different teachers on different days/times. when I first started training at my dojo there were two main teachers who taught on different/opposite days and have very different styles of teaching...some only went to one or the other, but most went to both. Just saying maybe you connect with one of the instructors better than others. Maybe its 'championship' season or 'play' season at local high schools and most of the students were not there because their kids have events they wanted to attend (my dojo just got over this).
You might find contracts more common at full-time dojo and monthly payments more common at part-time dojo...I've kind of noticed that in my limited time training around the US.